The WNBA star was part of a swap that freed Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, but failed to win freedom for another American, Paul Whelan, who has been jailed for nearly four years, the White House said.
The deal, the second in eight months amid tensions over Russia's invasion of Ukraine, secured the release of the most prominent American detained abroad and achieved a top goal for President Joe Biden. But it carried what U.S. officials described as a heavy price.
“She’s safe, she’s on a plane, she’s on her way home," Biden said from the White House, where he was accompanied by Griner's wife, Cherelle, and administration officials.
Biden's authorization to release Bout, the Russian felon once nicknamed “the Merchant of Death," underscored the heightened urgency that his administration faced to get Griner home, particularly after the recent resolution of her criminal case on drug charges and subsequent transfer to a penal colony. Griner, who also played pro basketball in Russia, was arrested at an airport there last February for bringing less than a gram of cannabis oil in vape cartridges into the country.
Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medalist, Baylor University All-American and Phoenix Mercury pro basketball star, whose arrest in February made her the most high-profile American jailed abroad. Her status as an openly gay Black woman, locked up in a country where authorities have been hostile to the LBGTQ community, injected racial, gender and social dynamics into her legal saga and brought unprecedented attention to the population of wrongful detainees.
The Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed the swap, saying in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that the exchange took place in Abu-Dhabi and that Bout had been flown home.
Biden spoke with Griner who was at an airport in Abu-Dhabi after she was greeted by U.S. officials. She was expected to be back in the U.S. within 24 hours, Biden said. U.S. officials said she would be offered specialized medical services and counseling, but declined to go into specifics citing privacy concerns.
Both Russian and U.S. officials had conveyed cautious optimism in recent weeks after months of strained negotiations, with Biden saying in November that he was hopeful that Russia would engage in a deal now that the midterm elections were completed. A top Russian official said last week that a deal was possible before year's end.
Even so, the fact that the deal was a one-for-one swap was a surprise given that U.S. officials had for months expressed their determination to bring home both Griner and Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive jailed in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges that his family and the U.S. government has said are baseless.
“We’ve not forgotten about Paul Whelan,” Biden said. “We will keep negotiating in good faith for Paul’s release.”
U.S. officials said they did not see an immediate path to bringing about Whelan's release, saying Russia has treated his case differently because of the “sham espionage” charges against him. Still, they said they believe communication channels with the Russians remain open for negotiations for his freedom — though it was not clear what cost would need to be paid to secure it.
“We didn’t want to lose the opportunity today to secure the release of one of them," said Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Whelan's brother David said in a statement he was “ so glad” for Griner’s release but also disappointed for his family. He credited the White House with giving the Whelan family advance notice and said he did not fault officials for making the deal.
“The Biden administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen,” he said.